Why does Afghanistan spell war?

The recent furore over Gordon Brown’s apparent misspelling of a dead soldier’s name has left me baffled. Of all the things to get worked up about: an “m” where there should have been an “n”! Not only that but the soldier’s name, “Janes”, is one I’ve never even heard of before, whereas “James” is common (my own surname gets misspelt all the time for similar reasons). I can understand the mother’s reaction – she just needs a target and a trigger to allow her to vent her grief – but the way in which the Sun ran with this story is bizarre*. Instead of inventing scandals, how about some attention to the real issues? Here’s six questions for a start:

1. What proportion of the UK’s resources can and should be channelled into the Armed Forces? One aspect of this story that has almost got lost amidst the obsession with handwriting is the suggestion that the soldier might have survived had he and his comrades been better equipped. I have a relative in the British Army and I know that it’s nowhere near as well provided for – in any sense of the word – as are US troops. Where do people propose to get the money from to fund the Army better however – other than cuts in the Public Sector, the savings from which will largely be eaten up by existing budget deficits. Do people propose paying higher taxes? Thought not. Should the scope of our Armed Services be scaled back to a level we can fund adequately from the existing defence budget? What would that mean: practically – not just now but also in the (perpetually uncertain) future; in terms of national pride; and in terms of international standing? What is the attitude to these questions in other European countries? Is military power really the most important factor in the 21st Century; or does economic strength count for more?

That’s a general question. The others concern this war in particular:

2. Who is the war against? We seem to have gone into Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda (global terrorist organisation) as our quarry, following the 9/11 atrocity; and ended up fighting a war with the Taliban (local terrorist organisation). I grant you the Taliban are reactionary and despotic, but so are many other organisations and regimes with whom we are not at war (Mugabe’s Zimbabwe anyone?). No-one even bothers to pretend we’re after Osama Bin Laden and his cronies any more, yet his presence in Afghanistan was the original justification for the invasion.

3. Why are the Taliban so important? What threat are they believed to represent which other extreme Islamist groups don’t? What is the evidence for it? Yes, Al-Qaeda found sanctuary in Afghanistan but they had also previously found it in Sudan. Is it not the case that in Britain the greatest terrorist threat is from people who are already in Britain (people who are as often as not citizens of our country); but who are disillusioned, disoriented and, consequently, easily radicalised? How does the war in Afghanistan mitigate this threat? Globally, are not Saudi Arabia and Pakistan of more importance than Afghanistan? It can be argued that the war in Afghanistan has strengthened extreme Islamism in Pakistan.

4. What are we fighting for? Are we trying to prevent the Taliban from imposing undemocratic rule on Afghanistan? If so, why do we not take a similar view with Hamid Karzai? Are we trying to secure a better life for the Afghans: healthcare, education, religious freedom, rights for women, etc? If so, is warfare the most productive way to go about it? Are we trying to protect the UK and, if so, are we achieving that aim? Or are we just hitting back so that the Islamist extremists won’t see us as weak? In which case, is the war achieving that aim? Could it not be argued that we are allowing the extremists to determine the rules of engagement (blood, blood and more blood) and in that way shoring up their sense that they call the shots?

5. What is the Islamist threat which we are seeking to avert? Are we trying to avoid another 9/11? The radicalisation of Western Muslims? The Islamisation of the West (demographic? cultural?) The polarisation of the world into spheres conceived in terms of ‘civilisations’? How many different anxieties are getting mixed up in this war – anxieties which in almost all cases concern things that can never be resolved on a battlefield.

6. What is the endpoint for this war? At what point will we be able to say it’s been won, it’s over? If there is no defined endpoint then how are we ever going to say it is over? Are we just going to fight it forever, each year sending more young men to die for this mysterious ’cause’? And that’s in addition to the thousands of ordinary Afghans who have been killed as a result of the conflict.

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically; nor am I a pacifist. I know there are situations in which it is both right and necessary to fight (WWII for example). I just do not understand the current war or our attitudes towards it. The Scandal of Gordon Brown’s Handwriting is just the latest in a line of stories which seem to focus on anything other than the war itself.

* And then again, this being the Sun we’re talking about, maybe not so bizarre.